NEWS

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March 26, 2021

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1:15 p.m.

Four UChicago Professors Found Organization to Protect Academic Freedom

Levi Hall

Levi Hall

Courtesy of University of Chicago

Four UChicago professors are founding members of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending academic freedom in higher education.

The AFA officially launched on March 8, and states that its mission is “protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.” It promises to support faculty who feel their academic freedom is in jeopardy, with legal action if necessary. Its members include faculty from colleges and universities nationwide.

In interviews with The Maroon, the four UChicago faculty members said the AFA is a necessary bulwark against increasing impingement on academic freedom, especially in allowing college and university faculty to express unorthodox views.

“There used to be more of a widespread agreement, at least in colleges and universities, that even very, very wrong or offensive speech was just part of what you expected to hear,” said William Baude, a professor of law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at the University of Chicago Law School.

The University has long been known for its commitment to free expression. The 1967 Kalven Report solidified the University’s policy against taking positions on social or political issues. Former president Robert Zimmer made the commitment to free expression central to his administration, for instance appointing a Committee on Freedom of Expression. In 2014, the committee published the Chicago principles to further articulate the University’s adherence to the ideals of free expression and debate. Since their publication, dozens of colleges nationwide have adopted versions of the Chicago principles.

However, the Chicago principles have been relatively controversial among University professors, with some lamenting the lack of an open forum to discuss the University’s free speech policy. According to reporting by The Daily Princetonian, founding AFA members at Princeton University “proposed the adoption of the Chicago Statement” in the AFA’s early conversations.

Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, joined the AFA because he believes that academic freedom is under threat from forces both outside and inside of universities. In particular, he emphasized how public universities can be more susceptible to external pressure. “Many public universities are now facing efforts by state legislatures to try to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, which is the new boogeyman for the Republican Party,” he said. “As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with what’s actually called critical race theory, for example in academic law, but we’ll put that aside.”

In addition, Leiter believes there is increasing pressure from within college and university communities, especially from college students themselves. “There is increasing pressure coming from those who consider themselves woke. They are very sensitive to what anyone says on matters of race, for example.” He brought up the example of Dorian Abbot, an associate professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences. Last year, Abbot drew criticism for expressing his disapproval of the current academic environment at UChicago, including its affirmative action policies in hiring and admissions.

Abbot, who is another a founding member of the AFA, said its founders reached out to him after hearing about this controversy. The experience made him realize the need for an organization like the AFA. Abbot believes that censorship of unpopular opinions can be represented by an iceberg model. To support this, he cited a recent report by Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, for the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. Kaufmann’s online surveys found that the majority of threats to academic freedom fell under the categories of “soft authoritarianism,” such as cases of self-censorship or a hostile climate for certain political beliefs. Only 0.03 percent of threats constituted “no-platforming or dismissal incidents,” where the individual in question is removed from the institution.

“A lot of the time, pressure doesn’t take the form of professors getting fired or students being expelled. A lot of the time, the punishments are gentler. Maybe a professor is taken away from some leadership position or the student won’t be given a letter of recommendation. I just worry that we’re losing sight of something that justifies the whole existence of academia,” Baude said.

Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance at the Booth School, explained how the AFA can protect non-tenured professors as well.

“I’m worried that my younger colleagues in particular won’t grow up in an environment in which they can not only say what they think, but most importantly, also do research in what they want to do,” he said. “Research even against the moral norms of society is important.”

Zingales expressed concern that academics will be afraid to study the negative side effects of vaccines, because any criticism of vaccines might cause people to label them as an anti-vaxxer. “I think academic freedom exists to make sure that we’re not shunned for the research we’re doing,” he said. In 2018, Zingales came under fire for inviting Steve Bannon to speak on campus, reigniting the debate over free speech and academic freedom.

Several professors pointed out that pressure to conform with orthodoxy comes from both liberals and conservatives. “The views of the founding members of the AFA run the political gamut from the so-called political right to the so-called political left, which I think is appropriate and accurate and important,” said Baude. Multiple professors mentioned that criticism of diversity or affirmative action initiatives is automatically denounced by those on the left, while any critique of Israel is automatically condemned by those on the political right.

All four professors agreed that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to voice dissent are crucial to the fundamental purpose of academia. “The specific function of a university, the reason that it exists, is to produce knowledge for society,” said Abbot. “If we’re restricting, in any way, the ability of individuals operating within the University to propose ideas and test them, then we’re undercutting the function of a university.”

Baude made a similar argument. “There are two pillars of academic freedom. One is a general belief in free speech. Then there is a separate belief, that even if you think speech in the public sphere should be regulated more, the whole point of a university is trying to work with controversial ideas through discussion and debate. I’m inclined to believe in both.”

The professors also brought up the University’s exceptionalism in regards to academic freedom. Abbot called UChicago “the gold standard” when it comes to academic freedom on college campuses. “In general, the University of Chicago is better than other places. But that doesn’t mean it’s immune to problems,” he said.

Baude concurred, “It seems to me Chicago is doing much better on this front than any other university, but Chicago won’t remain special forever if we don’t fight to keep it that way.”